SF Sightings — Jonathan Ames

Tonight at the Booksmith, a solid crowd of thirty (including the erstwhile Tito Perez, myself, and several people from Greenpeace) gathered to hear Jonathan Ames read from his book, Wake Up, Sir!. Ames was on tour for the book’s trade paperback release. He was dressed in a gray plaid sportscoat, a white shirt, a cap, light brown pants, and dark shoes — a vaguely Wodehousean wardrobe for a novel owing its inspiration to P.G. Wodehouse. He had also prepared for this reading by imbibing a cup of coffee and a bottle of water.

Ames had tried to get a transexual writer to read with him, but she was unavailable. So he began the reading by describing Sexual Metamorphosis, a collection of transsexual memoirs that came out in April through Vintage that he had edited. He described an evening in 1990 in a gay bar in Pennsylvania. That very evening, Ames was unexpectedly accosted by an older blonde woman, “Where have you been all my life?” She was fifty. Ames was twenty-five. This blonde woman gave her his phone number.

Ames later called her a few times and they talked. But he eventually threw the number away in deference to his girlfriend at the time.

jonathanames.jpgYears later, in 2001, while teaching at Indiana University, Ames was asked to blurb a transexual memoir from Temple University Press. He read The Woman I Was Not Born to Be by Aleshia Brevard, a book by a 1950s drag queen. Brevard was the first Marilyn Monroe impersonator. She eventually had a sex change operation and became a B-movie starlet.

At the time, Brevard’s name was familiar to Ames. And it occurred to him when she mentioned being involved in a theatre troupe in the same area that this was the same woman that he met at the Pennsylvania bar. He explained this situation to the publicist and within minutes, he had received a one-sentence email back from Brevard, “Where have you been, baby?” From here, the early seeds of Sexual Metamorphosis were sown.

Ames then read one lengthy section and several smaller sections from Wake Up, Sir!. The large section was a moment where the protagonist, Alan Blair, is listening to the sexual problems of Tinkle, a colleague at a Yaddo-like artistic colony. Ames read in a very affected, almost Anglicized timbre. Alan Blair, as read by Ames, was executed with a decided New England air. Ames’ oral rendition of Tinkle reminded me very much of Harvey Pekar’s sidekick in the movie American Splendor.

Before taking questions from the crowd, Ames took the time to express the virtues of an acupuncture place on 1329 Powell Street (@ Broadway). When he had stumbled through San Francisco back in September, he had a burning sensation for three months that had, for a mere thirty dollars, been relieved by this acunpuncturist. Well, Ames had seen the acunpuncturist again. Because the left side of his neck was paralyzed and he was having difficulties lifting his right arm. For about an hour and a half, the acunpuncturist had performed a considerable cupping. Ames then took off his shirt and exposed what he described as “the largest hickeys in history” — multiple reddish concave circles could be seen in copious quantities upon his back.

Aside from the feeling of relief, what had impressed Ames were the meticulous records that the acupuncturist had taken. There had been records from September about what the acupuncturist had done back then.

Ames put on his shirt and several questions were proffered from the audience. Ames suggested that he was incapable of writing a tragic book and noted that he placed his hand in his lap “for security reasons.” Alan Blair’s moustache situation was an homage to one Wooster-Jeeves story in which Wooster grew a moustache. The subject of hair led quite naturally to the subject of crabs. Ames asked how many in the audience had had crabs. One man bravely raised his hand.

Ames had had crabs twice. The first time is immortalized in his essay collection, What’s Not to Love? But a few years ago, he had a mystery case of crabs at a southern hotel. He shaved his entire body, using all manner of toxic chemicals on his pubic hair, only to find that they had returned. It was this situation that inspired the crabs episode in Wake Up, Sir!

Ames suggested that copying other voices was a key component to developing his own voice, which he was not entirely certain of. He did confess that at a young age, a British voice always crept up in his writing. For example, when pondering a scatological issue, it would often be executed in his head in a Masterpiece Theatre voice.

The subject of audiobooks came up and Ames confessed that his books didn’t sell enough copies to warrant an audiobook edition. He’d love to do recordings of his own work and has contemplated releasing his own audio editions.

Shortly after suggesting that he was “the gayest straight writer in America,” Ames then let loose three hairy calls. These sounds permeated the depths of the Booksmith. Ames had had some practice with these, having resorted to hairy calls as a child when threatened by normal children.

When Ames was done signing books, a portion of the crowd (including Tito, myself and the aforementioned Greenpeace folks) hied away to Hobson’s Choice for some drinks. But the proprietor of Hobson’s Choice actually carded Ames! This despite the fact that Ames took off his cap, illustrating in clear detail the well developed male pattern baldness that Ames had written about. Some of us surmised that this was because Hobson’s Choice had recently been fined for selling a drink to a minor. But I later pointed out that one was only carded in California if one looked under the age of 35. So perhaps the proprietor intended to flatter Ames.

Either way, Hobson’s Choice, in addition to turning away an important literary figure, lost a good deal of potential business. Aub Zam Zam received it instead. And I learned a lot about the internal workings of Greenpeace (expanding from knowledge that was near nil) while nursing a Grey Goose martini.

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